Twelfth Night Plot Summary: Act One, Scene Five–Clowns, Drunkards, Cruel Self-Lovers, and Quickly Catching Plagues

As we continue our Twelfth Night plot summary, the fifth and final scene of Act One takes us back to Olivia’s estate, where the scene begins much like the earlier scene at the estate, with Maria reprimanding one of the men of the house. In this case, it’s Feste the clown who has been “absent” (I.v.3) from the home and his entertaining duties, and Olivia is not happy about it.

So much so that when Feste greets the countess, she responds, “Take the fool away” (I.v.35). Feste then uses his foolish skills (and I mean that in a good way) to show Olivia the error of her (foolish) ways: Olivia’s brother is in Heaven, so if she mourns for him, then she‘s the fool. By the end of his dissertation, her respect for his skills overrides her earlier anger, as she asks her steward, “What think you of this fool, Malvolio? Doth he not mend?” (I.v.69-70).

We have now met a major player in the plot, the steward Malvolio. When he insults the fool, she chastises him:

O, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio, and taste with a distempered appetite. To be generous, guiltless, and of free disposition is to take those things for bird-bolts that you deem cannon bullets.
  • I.v.86-9

Malvolio has a cruel streak, and it has not missed Olivia’s attention.

At this point, Maria announces the arrival of “a young gentleman (who) much desires to speak” (I.v.95-6) with Olivia. She guesses that he’s from Orsino, and sends Malvolio to tell the youth that she is “sick, or not at home” (I.v.104-5). After Sir Toby enters with a drunken (or “half-drunk” [I.v.112] in the words of Olivia) description of the messenger, Malvolio re-enters, describing the messenger, who seems to have an answer for every statement Malvolio has made:

Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy—as a squash is before ’tis a peascod, or a codling when ’tis almost an apple. ’Tis with him in standing water, between boy and man. He is very well-favored, and he speaks very shrewishly. One would think his mother’s milk were
scarce out of him.
  • I.v.151-6

It’s quite the effeminate description. Maybe Orsino was right, however, in Act One, Scene Three: Olivia announces that she will give the messenger audience.

While the messenger is brought in, Olivia and her waiting gentlewom(e)n (Maria and others?) don veils to hide their faces.

Viola as Cesario enters, and begins “his” speech, only to stop and ask which of the veiled women is the lady of the house since he wants to direct it to the right woman, as “it is excellently well penned (and he has) taken great pains to con it” (I.v.166-7).

Olivia admits her identity, and so begins a wonderful game of linguistic cat-and-mouse, with Cesario hiding behind the “part”(I.v.172) he’s playing , Olivia trying to draw Cesario’s message out into the open, all the while Viola teaseing that she (as Cesario) is “not what (she) play(s)” (I.v.177), and that “what (she is), and what (she) would, are as secret as maidenhead” (I.v.207-8).

Cesario’s words for Orsino don’t succeed nearly as well as Cesario/Viola’s own when Olivia asks what Cesario himself would do to convince Olivia of his love:

Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house,
Write loyal cantons of condemnèd love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night,
Hallow your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out “Olivia!” O, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth
But you should pity me.
  • I.v.257-65

To this, Olivia can only answer, “You might do much” (I.v.266), and from that point on, her tone and demeanor change. She asks of Cesario’s parentage, sends him back to Orsino, never to return, unless Cesario returns himself to “tell (her) how (Orsino) take(s)” (I.v.271) the news. Calling Olivia “fair cruelty” (I.v.277), Cesario exits, leaving Olivia alone with her feelings.

And what feelings they are. Just as Viola admits to us that she wishes to be Orsino’s wife, Olivia wonders,


How now?
Even so quickly may one catch the plague?
Methinks I feel this youth’s perfections
With an invisible and subtle stealth
To creep in at mine eyes.
  • I.v.283-287

She sends her steward Malvolio to give Cesario back the ring he had brought from Orsino, even though no such ring exists and the one she does send comes from her own finger. She has fallen in love, too, and she admits she has no control: “Fate, show thy force; ourselves we do not owe. // What is decreed must be — and be this so!” (I.v.299-300). At the end of the first act, a woman has been shipwrecked, dons men’s clothes and name, then falls in love with her new employer. Meanwhile, that employer, even as he sends his new servant to present his suit of love to the mourning countess, has quickly founded a heartfelt connection with this young man (who’s actually a woman). And while the countess has made every attempt to mourn and be melancholic, she also finds herself attracted to this young male messenger, not knowing he’s a she.

And not one of them can control what they’re feeling.

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